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A deep dive into the pandemic-related bus shortages that plagued Orange County this year

A bus picks up students and community members on South Road on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Chapel Hill has been facing an ongoing local bus shortage.

Throughout the 2021 fall semester, Chapel Hill Transit and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have struggled to address shortages among bus drivers. 

There has consequently been a general reduction in transit operations at UNC and increased ride times from 45 minutes to one hour and 15 minutes for students on CHCCS buses. With Chapel Hill Transit’s temporary service changes from late September still in effect today, many wonder what progress has been made in meeting the demand for new drivers.

Brad Johnson, transportation director at CHCCS and Brian Litchfield, director of Chapel Hill Transit, said the bus driver shortage crisis has complex origins. However, they emphasized the impact of COVID-19, which has altered the labor market for drivers by shifting driver demand.

“We were trending in this direction pre-pandemic,” Johnson said. “The pandemic just exacerbated the problem.”

Johnson added that the shift toward working and shopping from home made working for other companies — notably Amazon and FedEx — more attractive for commercial drivers. As a result, he said the market for drivers has become far more competitive, with several transit services fighting to attract a limited number of applicants.

“Prior to the pandemic, Chapel Hill Transit would average between 400-500 applicants with little to no advertising in a year,” Litchfield said. “Over the last 10 months, we have received around 100 applicants with aggressive advertising.”

Another issue for transportation services has been the extensive training required for drivers.

“Even if we start getting folks to apply, it will still take a couple months to get them trained up,” Mayor Pro Tem Michael Parker said. “You need a commercial driver’s license to drive a bus — we will help them get those licenses, but it takes time.”

Additionally, not all applicants become employees. Litchfield said only one in 20 applicants become members of the team, which is not enough to replace losses in front-line and technical-level staff at Chapel Hill Transit.

Both Johnson and Litchfield mentioned efforts taken by their respective organizations to attract new bus drivers, which they said were intended to address the more competitive marketplace.

“(CHCCS) has come up with a comprehensive aggressive recruitment and retention strategy in which we’re offering a $4,000 signing bonus to individuals that come in and work with us,” Johnson said. “There are various things that we’re doing to attract and retain drivers.”

Other efforts to attract more drivers include a $2,000 bonus to employees who refer new drivers, opportunities for 40 hour work weeks and an increased signing bonus of $4,000. 

Litchfield said that Chapel Hill Transit has also made salary adjustments with the intention of becoming more competitive and drawing new employees. However, he said these efforts have not been enough.

“Our rates have not kept up with the market for public sector operators and mechanics and lags well behind most private sector opportunities in pay,” Litchfield said. “We continue to work with the town on options for salary adjustments and other options for retention and recruitment.”

Parker said Chapel Hill Transit remains over 30 drivers short of its desired total. Both Litchfield and Parker said they believe the shortage will likely remain an issue in the future.

“It’s not something which can be fixed in a week or two,” Parker said. “It’s going to take a good bit of time till we can get back to normal.”


@DTHCityState |


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